Our Christmas trip (part two)

Having ate well, slept well, and showered well, we were feeling in a better mood when we awoke early on Tuesday, December 23rd. Our first breakfast at the Kandalama Hotel brightened our mood even more. Every morning they put out a breakfast spread to appeal to visitors from pretty much anywhere on the planet. Sri Lankan string hoppers, made-to-order omelets and waffles, excellent Canadian  bacon, all kinds of pastries, and loads of fresh tropical fruit. We were tempted, but could not linger as our driver picked us up at 8:30AM for the drive to Anuradhapura.

We had made a strategic decision that, in retrospect, I am not sure I would recommend to others. We decided to base ourselves at the Kandalama Hotel, near Dambulla,  and make day trips from there. However, it is a two hour drive from the Kandalama Hotel to both Anuradhapura and Polonnuruwa and four hours a day spent in the car is not our idea of a good time. The upside was not having to pack up and move every day and being able to spend more time in the dining room of the Kandalama Hotel. But there are other very fine hotels in the area that I am sure would have been delightful and would likely have saved us money (it is “high season” here, however). Not that we seriously regret our decision, we enjoyed getting to know the Kandalama and its staff very much.

Anuradhapura is (here it comes again) a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the site of the first capital of ancient Sri Lankan kings, the site of the establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and dates from the 3rd century BCE.

Jetavanarama Dagoba

Jetavanarama Dagoba

The capital thrived for 1300 years and was abandoned around 1000 CE after which it faded into the jungle. It is a very large site and we did not try to see it all. Our first stop was the Jetavanarama Dagoba. (“Dagoba” is pronounced like “pagoda” with appropriate substitution of consonants.) A dagoba is a reliquary, with the relics contained in the boxy portion of the structure below the spire (here a truncated spire) (the hataraes kotuwa). The spire represents a furled, ceremonial parasol (the chatta). Around the outside of the dagoba is a promenade (the vahalakda) where pilgrims circle the dagoba in a clockwise direction. Entrance to the vahalakda is through gates at the four cardinal points. The Jetavanarama Dagoba was built in the 3rd century CE and is 70m (230 feet) tall. At the time it was built, it was the third tallest man-made structure in the world, the other two being Egyptian pyramids. Even today, this dagoba is the largest and tallest structure made entirely of brick anywhere on earth and consists of some ninety million bricks (stats from Lonely Planet – Sri Lanka).

As significant as the Jetavanarama Dagoba is, our attention was diverted by the many monkeys hanging around the site.

Madonna and child

Madonna and child

As we were to learn, monkeys are all over the ancient site. At first, I carefully stalked a monkey trying to get a good shot. By the end of the day, I had had my fill of monkey photos. But monkeys can be strangely compelling, I suppose because they are fellow primates and our brains respond strongly to their almost human features. For the photographer, their docility and dependence on humans for food make them easy to approach for close up shots. Of course, one needs to be somewhat careful, as a monkey bite can be vicious and monkeys are carriers for rabies and other diseased they share with Man.

Leaving Jetavarama Dagoba, we drove to the vicinity of the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba.The Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba was built around 140 BCE, though it has been remodeled from time to time.

Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba

Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba

Thus, the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba is in much better condition than the Jetavanarama Dagoba and so we spent much more time here, slowly completing a clockwise circuit of the dagoba. The circuit was almost like a circus, there was so much going on. There were many devoted worshippers, of course, making offerings of flowers, especially lotus blossoms, and burning oil lamps. There was a monkey scrimmage as two males presumably fought it out for their position in the dominance hierarchy. Almost like gang members, others in the troop seemed to egg them on and root for one or the other. A monkey family had occupied a portion of the outer wall that was decorated with Buddhist flags. Maybe thirty feet off the ground, a cat was surveying the scene from a decorated lintel. The cat and a monkey passed each other on this narrow ledge, studiously ignoring each other. I got a good shot of a Eurasian kingfisher roosting on a light fixture. And, when we left the compound a Sri Lankan family asked me to take a group portrait, which I did.

From Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba we walked to the Sri Maha Bodhi, one of the most sacred sites in Sri Lanka. The bodhi tree is the species of tree under which the Buddha was seated when he attained enlightenment.

Decoration in wall surrounding Sri Maha Bodhi

Decoration in wall surrounding Sri Maha Bodhi

The Sri Maha Bodhi tree is said to have been grown from a cutting from the very tree under which the Buddha sat when he attained enlightenment. It has been cared for by an unbroken succession of protectors for over 2000 years and is thus the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world. Cuttings from this tree have been spread to many temples around Sri Lanka and elsewhere where they are much revered. None of my photos of the tree itself turned out well. There is no viewpoint with an unobstructed view of the tree. The tree is surrounded by a low wall, richly decorated and other bodhi trees. One of my favorite images was that of the swan, repeated just below the top of the wall.

By this time, we were hot, sweaty, thirsty, and hungry. So we walked back to the car and were driven into town for lunch at a dicey looking restaurant. Considering the decided lack of ambiance, the food was actually pretty good, as we have often found in Sri Lanka. Watered and fed, we went back to the ancient site for a short afternoon visit.

The engineering works of the ancient Sri Lankan people really are remarkable. In addition to the construction of large buildings, their waterworks are amazing. We often thought of Kris’s father, who spent much of his life as a water resources engineer helping to tame the water of Asia.

Kris at Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Pools)

Kris at Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Pools)

We wished for his presence as we imagined the joy and enthusiasm he would have displayed on this trip. The sight of the Kuttam Pokuna (the Twin Ponds), our first stop after lunch, would have lit up his face with his bright eyes, broad smile, and ready laugh as he fumbled to keep his pipe lit. Our sense of loss at his passing was acute, even as we could almost feel his presence.

The Kuttom Pokuna are two bathing pools presumably used by monks associated with another dagoba close by. The only occupant on this day was an algae covered turtle, but the pools look like all they need is a rinsing to continue service as a public bath.

We next visited the Samadhi Buddha, a statue carved in the 4th century CE. The statue is in pristine condition, amazing considering it is 1600 years old, and is very skillfully carved from solid rock. As well as being truly beautiful, the Samadhi Buddha is still an active worship site. The statue is surrounded by a green, park like area, a calm, welcome relief from the heat and the dust of much of the rest of the ruins at Anuradhapura. Avian visitors to the site gave me the opportunity to get some photos (though of relatively poor quality) of a spotted dove and a white-throated kingfisher.

Our last stop of the day was to see one of the best preserved moonstones in Sri Lanka.

Moonstone at Anuradhapura

Moonstone at Anuradhapura

A moonstone is a semi-circular, low-relief carving that served as a kind of  “welcome mat” at temple entrances. The moonstone is carved in concentric semicircular bands, usually depicting animals of symbolic importance. Unfortunately, this moonstone is surrounded by a fence, so it is difficult to get a photo of the entire piece. However, the details are wonderful and were enhanced that day by some rainwater, standing on the moonstone, that had yet to evaporate in the day’s heat.

At this point we were incapable of absorbing anything new. So we climbed back in the car, returned to the hotel, and climbed back into the shower.

Bed decoration, Kandalama Hotel

Bed decoration, Kandalama Hotel

Clean and in fresh clothes, we swanked off to the dining room and stuffed ourselves like pigs at the trough. Upon returning to our room, we found the bed decorated with fresh flowers, a nice touch.

I promised in my last posting to describe the hotel in more detail. The photos associated with the last posting contain my photos of the room. The hotel’s website is here. The Kandalama Hotel is another design of Geoffrey Bawa, the post-colonial Sri Lankan architect we first started to appreciate on our trip to Galle. As with the Lighthouse Hotel in Galle, the essence of the design is to make the hotel a seamless part of the landscape. It is literally built into the side of a rock cliff, Kandalama Rock. If you view the hotel from the lake, you can appreciate how Bawa has made the hotel blend in. The surrounding jungle foliage hides the lower floors. In fact, the main entrance to the hotel is approached from a driveway that arrives at the hotel on the fifth floor.  The hotel bends backward to conform to the curve of the rock face. The outer surface of the hotel forms a kind of trellis that is covered with vines, further masking the hotel from sight. There are certain strategically selected places one can see: the top floor overlook and pool, the sixth floor dining room, the fifth floor pool and bar area. The fact that the hotel continually bends backwards allows another interesting feature, no curtains on your room’s wall-to-wall bathroom. You take your shower in full view of Nature, sans the eyes of mankind. This was a bit disconcerting to a Swedish visitor who had stayed at the Kandalama before visiting Peradeniya, who related that some monkeys watched him intently during his morning shower. The bedroom windows do have curtains, but not for privacy so much, rather to allow you to sleep in on the morning.

In our travels, we have decided that the definition of a five star hotel is a four star hotel that charges outrageously for anything beyond a clean bed and a clean bathroom. The Kandalama fits this definition. It is a destination hotel and we booked it including half-board, i.e., with breakfast and dinner. The Kandalama is pretty isolated. Once we had stayed close to the hotel for the day and needed lunch. The cost, on inquiry, was $25 each in the main dining room. Well, we did not really need a the full buffet service of the main dining room, so we went to the poolside restaurant which serves more snacky stuff. We spent the minimum for a sandwich and soft drink and ended up paying $40! As another example, the hotel has apparently contracted with Sri Lanka Telecom for their in-room wireless internet service and the cost was more than I was willing to pay. How is it that, even in the US, a Motel 6 comes with free wireless, but a Hilton charges a fair fraction of the nightly room rate for the same service?

On a brighter side, the Kandalama buffet was excellent. I have already mentioned the breakfast buffet, but lunch and dinner are equally full of a wide range of cuisines. I have to admit that despite the fact that I love Sri Lankan cooking, I did not select a single Sri Lankan dish during our entire stay at the Kandalama. Instead, I gorged on fresh fruit and salad, cooked to order sate and BBQ, and other Western and Chinese dishes. It was a welcome change of pace.

Also on the brighter side, the hotel has very reasonably priced excursions. They offer birdwatching hikes and boat rides, elephant rides, trips to Sigiriya, balloon rides, and others. Normally they offer a night walk to see nocturnal creatures, but they were cancelled all week due to the presence of wild elephants in the vicinity. So we signed up for several of these excursions, which was good, since we had sent our driver home for three days to spend Christmas with his family.

So, as it turned out, the day ended by setting an early alarm clock for the morning, as we were scheduled to take a walk with the hotel naturalist at the “crack of dawn.”


More picture associated with the events in this posting can be found at my Picasa website.



  1. Kris said,

    January 12, 2009 at 8:24 am

    Nice account, Tim! I want to add to the five star part–it includes prompt service when needed. We reported a water leak from the ceiling of our room and the repair staff responded immediately, which was very good service. And everything was very, very clean.
    You forgot to mention the Christmas dinner buffet. The kitchen staff pulled out all the stops to present the most beautiful buffet I have ever seen, and I am well traveled. To do ice sculptures in a tropical climate is a very difficult thing, and they had several. There were so many choices I could hardly take them in, for every course and every type of food. The hotel charged extra for this, of course, but everyone was appreciative. The dining area was decorated, all the tables rearranged to make a dance floor, and there was live entertainment after dinner. It was extraordinary. Some of the staff performed Christmas songs, tho I would have liked to hear some of the old carols rather than the secular “Jingle Bells” ilk, but it was still over the top and much more than I would have expected.

  2. Kris said,

    January 12, 2009 at 8:33 am

    The Kandalama is famous for its cuisine, for good reason. Maybe Tim will be touching on this again, but I wanted to try to express the beauty of the place. I was deeply touched by the Mass, a small gathering in the top floor of the hotel with a view of Lake Kandalama at sunset. We offered prayers for peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, and the priest’s homily was a lovely message of welcome to the Christ. His English followed an unfamiliar rhythm but his message was unmistakable, of love and justice and peace.
    Our last two nights there were clear and breezy, and we were seated for dinner at outside tables high above the lake. It was marvelous to see so many stars, have a five star dinner by candle light, watch a few birds and bats heading home, and celebrate our good fortune. We visited with a few staff members and they seemed glad to be there. They live in dorms, also designed by Bawa, participate in a promotion-from-within organization, and work long hours but they are paid well. Most of the staff go home to their families about once a week. One young man, who probably would have found the hours very long otherwise (he was on duty from 6:30 a.m. to 11 pm. every day) told us that everyone on staff worked the same hours. So the managers, the senior security people, et al, are also there. No wonder morale was so high; I remembered all my old jobs where a few of us small fry would be stuck at work over the holidays, while the senior people played…

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